CW: mentions and discussion of mental illness and suicide (including an attempt), discussion and description of relationship abuse, mentions of rape and sexual violence, lack of support systems, ableism, police
I’ve mentioned a few times now that I had to quit my PhD early last year (the official termination date is 1 April 2019). I haven’t talked too much about why, though when I have I’ve given brief, and thereby necessarily simplified accounts. I’d like to write a bit more fully about why.
But first the TL;DR version:
So… why did I quit the PhD?
Because of seriously insufficient mental health support, and because I was mentally ill throughout most of it (depression and later PTSD). Because I was on medication which made me more suicidal. Because I was in an abusive relationship which took over a lot of my life and was raped by that same abusive ex partner (while we were still together) – the rape being what led to the PTSD. And the university’s domestic violence policy doesn’t account for grad students. Because I reported the rape to the police which was extremely re-traumatising. Because my PhD research was on issues of sex, ethics, consent/non-consent (and therefore rape) and so became extremely triggering. Because I only found out that I’m autistic and ADHD (i.e. disabled) more than two years into the PhD, and was only then able to start accessing disability support, which turned out to be mostly really ableist, trash, and not useful. Because I was on a three year scholarship (with a six month extension), and all of those other things added up to mean that in the ca. three years that I’d been working on my PhD by the time I terminated the programme, I had a more or less complete draft of only one chapter and the introductory chapter, and that was all. I had run out of time/funding, because my life and mental health had gotten fucked up.
The fuller account is a longer story, and in order to tell this story, I need to take you back in time a bit, to when I started my PhD, in February 2016. I also need to explain that when I was accepted into the PhD programme, I was automatically awarded a University of Auckland Doctoral Scholarship because I had gotten a high enough grade on my MA (I’d gotten an A, so first class honours). That paid for my fees, and it also paid me a stipend to cover living costs. A perfectly respectable amount on its own, though supplemented with the part-time salary I got during the semesters I was also tutoring,1 it was a very comfortable income indeed!
That first month of my PhD was great! I went in to the office pretty much every day, for a full day, and I worked from the office (I had an office – shared, of course, but still), and my idea was that I was going to do my work at the office and then leave it there and not feel like I still had to work on things once I got home, thereby giving myself permission to relax once I got home. It was great, I made good progress on my literature review. For a month.
I should also explain that starting around the same time (I don’t remember exactly when now, but around a similar time) and until November 2017, when I finally escaped, I was in a relationship with a man whom I will refer to as “the bad ex”. This relationship became increasingly abusive (mostly emotionally/verbally, though he also raped me and there was other sexual abuse/physical abuse in a sexual context), hence why I think of the end of that relationship as more of an escape than a breakup.
In addition to this, a few months before I started my PhD I had ended an eight year relationship (and we’d been civilly united for seven of those years), so I was grieving the loss of that relationship too. This also meant that I was living on my own for the first time… ever! As it turns out, I don’t do well living on my own. It turns out that living on my own is very, very bad for my mental health, as I was going to find out over the following two years!
By the time I started my PhD, my doctor had diagnosed me with depression (again – this wasn’t the first time) and put me on new antidepressants (which a community mental health psychiatrist would, a few months down the track, switch me off, to a different medication, because those new meds had made me even more suicidal!).
So, brief recap so far: started the PhD right after leaving an eight-year relationship, living on my own for the first time ever, new bout of depression, and on new antidepressants which were making me more suicidal, at the same time starting a new relationship which was going to become increasingly abusive! Oh, but that first month working on my PhD was great!
And then things started going downhill…
I don’t have a timeline of the rest of the three years. I can say that I stopped coming in to the office. At first I tried going in when I felt up to it (and sometimes when I was on campus for tutoring work anyway), and eventually I stopped trying. I tried working from home instead. Mostly that meant working from my PC, trying to read through whatever it was that I was reading, trying to write things that made sense, while at the same time trying to juggle/wade the through the hell that had become my life. Other times I would just lie in bed for hours on end, starting into space, reading (sometimes PhD material, other times other things) or trying to read and not taking anything in, and not sleeping because of insomnia.
When I was starting to look at options for quitting the PhD towards the end of 2018, I found out about terms like “termination” (quitting it), and “suspension” (putting it on hold for up to 12 months, which would also mean putting on hold the scholarship payments). The thing is… as 2016 wore on, and my mental health deteriorated further and further, I was barely working on my PhD at all. I kept postponing meetings with my supervisors. I kept sending emails with excuses. I couldn’t focus, I had no motivation. I had no desire to live, let alone try to write a thesis!
Had someone told me back then that taking a suspension was an option, so I could have taken the time I needed to get well… maybe that would have been what I needed. Of course, I don’t know if I would have seen it. It was also complicated by the fact that I was getting more and more involved with the bad ex (a relationship which got messier and more and more abusive, and in July 2016 I converted to Islam since that was the only way that we would be able to have a future together, though I tried to convince everyone, even myself, that I wasn’t converting for him)… but no one told me about that option back then.
But, was I getting help? Yes. I was seeing my doctor (my GP), and I was seeing the community mental health services,2 and I was seeing a counsellor at the university counselling service. Except, of course, like so many other universities, UoA has a limit on the number of sessions that students can have, in our case it was six sessions per student per year. Which, when there are students who have serious mental health issues, is simply not enough. The counsellor I saw was one I’d seen on and off for a number of years, and when she left the university to move away, she offered to keep seeing me privately (at a tiny cost, pretty much only charging me to maintain a professional relationship), via Skype because she felt that continuity of care was important. That way I was able to see her more regularly too. I can say without a doubt that if it hadn’t been for that counsellor it’s highly unlikely that I would still be alive now.
When I converted to Islam, I decided that I needed to change my thesis topic (originally “Virtue Ethics and Sex”) to reflect my new-found faith, so I could incorporate some Islamic perspectives. My supervisors advised caution, but I was determined, and so I started researching Islamic approaches to virtue ethics, as well as feminist Islamic ethics, and combining those to keep researching things to do with ethics and sex. It was all very interesting, but my mental health was still a mess and work was still very sporadic.
In February 2017 I took an intentional overdose of medication, in a somewhat miscalculated suicide attempt. I spent the night in A&E and the bad ex came to see me the next day while I was still in A&E before I got discharged. He tried to talk the nurse into admitting me to a psych ward. She had to explain to him that that wouldn’t be a good idea.3 He walked me to the bus. On the bus home I emailed my supervisor asking him if we could postpone our meeting which we had scheduled for the next day, explaining that I’d just been in hospital (I didn’t say why). He said that was fine, and told me he hoped I would feel better soon.
I can’t remember when it was that I eventually told my supervisors about the mental health situation (though not about the suicide attempt), and about how difficult it had been to do any work. I can’t remember now what the suggestions were, though I remember that they were very kind about it.
I think it was in May 2017 that my main supervisor left to take up a new position overseas, so I got a new supervisor from the religious studies department and she and my then co-supervisor became my joint co-supervisors.
I don’t have an exact date, but sometime between March and the end of September 2017 the bad ex raped me. Trauma fucks with the way our memory works, and I don’t want to get into that part now. I wasn’t even able to acknowledge to myself, or at all, that it had been rape until early 2018. I was reading a book about abusive relationships, and there was a checklist in it, of things that abusive partners do, and one of those items was around sexual things and non-consent. And going through that checklist, I shutdown for about two days. I hid in my room, in bed. I kept thinking about that time he raped me (though I still couldn’t think that word). I can’t remember who I talked to about it first. The police report says my counsellor. I think it might have actually been my flatmate, though it’s possible it was one of my sisters. I don’t know if I’ve ever told my flatmate how grateful I am for how supportive he was in his response, just being there, listening, and believing me. When I did tell my counsellor (who I was still seeing via Skype until late January/February 2018), she was the one who first used the word rape. I still couldn’t.
But, I started to get better. In November 2017, about a week after I’d moved in to an apartment with a friend/fellow PhD student, I ended things with the bad ex.4 Via text. I will make no excuses for that. I don’t give a fuck how many times he begged me to see me “just one more time” because apparently breaking up via text is so fucking heartless. When the relationship is abusive, fuck it, I don’t give a fuck.
So, back to getting better. Having a flatmate was (and still is, though in different ways now) great for me! It helped me establish a sense of routine in those early days. I’d had no sleep schedule for so long that I started to feel guilty when I was still up late at night after he went to bed. I started going to bed at reasonable times. I got up early. I started going for regular walks in the mornings. I can’t remember now if I started feeding myself real food, but, y’know, baby steps. The exercise, the sleep schedule, the regular peopling (even in small doses)… it was amazing. I was feeling great. Even stopped seeing my counsellor eventually (by mutual agreement).
And then I decided that it’d be a good idea to report the bad ex to the police.5 Suffice it to say that the experience was extremely re-traumatising and that they decided not to prosecute because of a “lack of evidence”. I started seeing a new therapist under ACC Sensitive Claims in April 2018 (around the same time I first saw the police). I am still seeing that same therapist now.
Sometime in mid-2018 I deconverted from Islam again. I had, while Muslim, been very committed. I had read through an entire English translation of the Qur’an and studied it thoroughly, I’d learned to pray and was working on praying regularly, in 2017 I’d fasted for all of Ramadan, I wore a headscarf… but in the lead up to Ramadan in 2018, I was starting to realise that I hadn’t been able to pray anymore. Anything to do with it, was too triggering for me.6 In terms of my PhD thesis, this meant another change of topic.
And my deadline was fast approaching. The PhD programme is meant to be three years fulltime (which is the amount of time which the scholarship is funded for, though a six-month extension can be applied for).
And then, in mid-2018, another spanner/ray of hope got thrown into the works. I found out that I’m autistic! I had previously had no fucking clue!! (I mean, now it’s obvious as fuck, but nope, no clue!) It was good timing because I happened to have the money to actually pay for a private assessment at the time (what with the scholarship money, and money saved up from previous tutoring work)!7 And then, at the end of 2018/early 2019 found out that I’m also ADHD, but getting ahead of myself there.8
This was great news insofar as it meant that I could get a referral to the university disability services, who referred me to the student learning services. Who… turned out to be trash. Like, calling executive dysfunction laziness and telling me to just try harder kind of trash. But first, I did get help drawing up a bunch of schedules and deadlines for myself, which were going to help me get the rest of my thesis (newly planned out chapters and subsections, what with the newly reverted back to “Virtue Ethics and Sex” topic – no Islam) finished within the fuck all time I had left.
What this brilliant plan didn’t account for, of course, was PTSD. And the fact that the material I was working on was mostly to do with sex, ethics and sexual consent (and therefore also non-consent), and so yeah, sexual violence! And holy moly, that shit was triggering as all hell!
I mean, I remember a conversation I had with my former main supervisor (before he up and moved overseas) where I was ranting about fucking philosophers insisting on using the fucking generic masculine in their writing… and yeah, sure, that’s a pain. But I can fix that. I can degender anything I read if I need to quote their shit work. But that’s nothing compared to reading an actual book on rape/rape culture, and reading quotes from judges in the not so distant past, in this very country, where they talk about how if every man stopped when a woman says no, the world would be a lot less interesting (paraphrasing from memory here, but that shit sorta sticks in your head!!).
In August 2018, I had been doing some work with my former MA supervisor, who’d come on board my “supervisory team” as an advisor, specifically because of her expertise in virtue ethics, and after having just drawn up these great schedules with the help of disability services and student learning services, and then missing one of my (self-imposed) deadlines… she bluntly tells me that if I don’t pull my shit together quicksmart, I should probably drop out/come back to it when I’m in a better place. And that conversation hurt. I cried, a lot. I wasn’t ready to hear it. I had a schedule! Yeah, I’d missed a deadline, but I was sure that I could just make this work by sheer force of will.
Reader, I could not.
I mean, I did do some more good work over the following months. Maybe some of my best. I presented at the department Work in Progress Day and won two, out of four, audience voted prizes (best Q&A and most novel/unique research – my flatmate, a fellow PhD student, said I probably had a bit of an advantage, since I was talking about sex). One of the questions in the Q&A started a conversation with another fellow PhD student, which lead to what I consider to be some of my most important work yet (and I still consider his argument to be abhorrent).
And yet I know that my advisor was right. My brain was fucked. I don’t know if she knew about the PTSD. I just emailed her recently to thank her for that conversation, since I was finally in a place to be able to, and to find the words to, thank her for that. And neither of us can remember if I’d told her about the PTSD. I know I’d told her about the bad ex. But it doesn’t even matter, really, what she knew about. She was right. If I’d dropped out/put it on hold then, maybe I could have taken a break (a suspension) for a year, and come back to it in a better headspace. As it is, I pushed myself too far.
When it finally came time to make a decision about the future of the PhD, it had gotten to the point where I didn’t feel like I had a choice. There was hardly any time left that I still had funding for, and I wasn’t going to be able to write four or five chapters in six months (and do whatever research I still needed to do for those chapters). Even if I took a suspension at that point, coming back to it after a year didn’t make it feel any more realistic. I’d backed myself into a corner.
I don’t know if I’ll never go back to academia again (I don’t want to say that, because who knows, I might), but I certainly don’t intend to for the foreseeable future. As my supervisors said when I left, the research I did isn’t going anywhere. It’s still there, in my notes, in the things I wrote, so if I ever want to pick it up again, or do something with it, it’s still there. But for now, I don’t.
I feel like I need some kind of “ending” to this… not necessarily a “happily ever after” (there isn’t one, as yet, I still don’t have a clue what I’m doing with my life, but sure as hell not academia things!). But some way to wrap up this story to not leave it just… hanging there.
But, I guess the thing about this story is that it left me hanging. After quitting the PhD, I… floundered. I had nothing to do, and I have only in the last few months been starting to find things to do again. Mental health things got worse again before they got better (turns out quitting a PhD brings quite a sense of loss, which can bring on another round of depression). Therapy has helped, and is still helping. But there is no “end” to this story, I don’t think, because this story is my life, and this is only part of it.
1 I think the tutoring (Graduate Teaching Assistant) work will need a separate blog post of its own. Suffice it to say that in the semesters where I did also do tutoring work it hugely added to my stress levels and was not good for my mental health.
2 Whom I had several terrible experiences with, and only recently found out that on three occasions during this time they filled out forms about me which included questions about family violence which they did not ask me… on some of these forms the answers are blank, on others they’re filled out with “no” as though they had asked me, but they never did. And I have tried making formal complaints about this, but so far nothing has come of it.
3 She would’ve been the one who filled out the last of those three forms (the one dated most recently), the forms with the questions about family violence on them. And she saw and spoke with the bad ex.
4 I discovered a while ago that UoA has a domestic violence policy (I don’t know if they’ve updated this in the meantime since I last read it, and tbh, I don’t have the spoons right now to read over it again) to support students and staff who are leaving abusive relationships. However, this policy doesn’t really have any room for graduate students who are in the sort of position that I was in. For staff, there are things in place about taking time off, for students there’s things about taking classes off… but what about those of us who aren’t teaching, and aren’t taking classes… who are working on, say, a thesis, but only have scholarship funding for a limited amount of time…?? There’s nothing in there for us.
5 I have a lot of big, complicated, and messy feelings about this now, so this will likely be another blog post, so I won’t get into whether or not it was a good idea here, nor my reasons for doing so.
6 Again, this is something I will likely write more about in another post. I do just want to be clear that I did not deconvert out of any ill will I feel towards Islam as a religion, or towards Muslims. I believe that Islam, like all other religions, is not monolithic, and is as varied as the views of the Muslims who live and practice the faith. I deconverted because I came to admit to myself that I did not believe, and because engaging in the practices, such as prayer, was triggering for me, because of the trauma associations with the bad ex. I hope it is clear that I do not see the bad ex as being in any way representative of Muslims!
7 Public funding is only available for childhood diagnoses, or for adult diagnoses for those admitted to hospital for psychiatric reasons, if I remember correctly. Of course, this means that a lot of people (especially those of us who are not boys, not cis, and those who are not Pākehā) get missed in childhood and then have to pay out of pocket for the private diagnosis. And we are often less likely to be able to afford them.
8 My GP referred me for the ADHD diagnosis when I was about to leave uni, and at that point I had fuck all money, and getting that done privately was not really something I could afford. I’ve since found out that it is possible to get it done through the public health system, but she didn’t do that referral, which I’m very pissed off about. Also, the first psychiatrist she sent me to gave me ADHD meds but no diagnosis. I didn’t like him. I found myself a different psychiatrist after that.